Why Most Writers Get Zombies Wrong

Aw snap. I said it. They get it WRONG, yo! Like, stickin’ shells in a pistol!

ZombieMyth is all the rage right now, with The Walking Dead on AMC, countless zombipocalypse movies/TV shows playing (Joss Whedon, anyone?), and of course the video game scene. People Love the Zombies. From the writing angle, though, few writers do it justice. I wrote a chapter on a zombie project a few years back, and I stopped because I felt I didn’t understand the concept well enough to do it justice.

So, years later, I realized most writers don’t take the concept back to its roots to figure out why, exactly, this theme exists in the first place. Most writers use it as a plot device, or a Big Thing in some scifi-esque apocalypse–which is great for visual media. Writing?

Max Brooks (son of director Mel Brooks. Awesome) wrote a bunch of zombipocalypse books (World War Z as the most defining of these) where he came closest to understanding the basics of the zombie theme, though he focused much more on survival and the sociopolitical than anything else.

So where did this zombie idea come from? As with most supernatural, it came from many, many stories from the Bible (Jesus rising from the dead, Lazarus?) and Hindu stories (heck, any major religion is rife with zombie lore), fairy tales/old wives’ tales, lead poisoning from lead-lined steins that nearly stopped the heart, Vampirism, and the list goes on and on.

But I’m not talking about mystical, magical, religious, or vaguely backcountry-ignorant zombie lore. I’m talking about the world dying, leaving only the few surviving people and all the masses of animalistic undead.

Revelation talks about the death of the masses. But I still feel something much more important happened–actually happened–to fuel this interest.

Bubonic plague. Literally reanimated corpses, no, but the walking dead? Heck yeah. A great equalizer, an unseen killer, a mutagen that makes boils erupt on the skin and destroy motor function, creates a high fever and the psychological desolation of an entire society unable to assist. The fact is, this happened. It happened three times in historical memory. It desolated society. It’s the only act in the history of the world that is similar to zombipocalypse.

Nobody talks about it–although I don’t spend much time in zombie theory chatrooms–and every zombie book I’ve ever read focuses on it as a plot device, or a social commentary, or a force to move the story forward. Except, maybe, Brooks. Writers dive into “it’s happening,” and, “survival,” while ignoring where it came from.

Now, I’m going to take this a step further and say it’s a racial memory: history has an impact on us, and if you study the historical “chaos theory” patterns, you will find it’s time for population control. In the past, it’s been accomplished through war, food shortage, and, of course, plague. There’s a reason the four horsemen are called what they are: they are the great cullers of society.

Zombification is the closest embodiment of the bubonic plague, of culling, that we have. It’s fantasy, of course. Of course. Except, you know, this “zombie” stuff has happened before. Three times.

We writers can do better than that: we can write a thousand vampy fluff romance urban fantasies, but we can’t write five good zombie novels? Different undead, different genre, different… whatever. But I call BS. Zombies are to writing as hard rock is to music. Media’s catching on. It isn’t like writing martial arts novels: this theme is made to be written.

Let’s do it right. I’m in. Any other takers?

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6 thoughts on “Why Most Writers Get Zombies Wrong

  1. Finally, someone said it, wrote it! I must agree with you here, as I have done research in this area myself, although not recent. Most writers and movies leave so much to be desired, especially once you have learned the true origins of zombies. If one thinks about the wrongness let’s say, then writers can realize the untapped potential of writing a true zombie novel whether for young adults or adults. Thank you for this post.

    • Yes! We need more good zombie novels! I think there’s a hole in this genre, and it needs to be amended!

      We should create the ZLF – Zombie Liberation Front.

  2. I’m all for this…naturally.

    Yeah, like you said, in every zombie story I’ve written, the zombies were a plot device or used for social commentary. I’ve always been fascinated (not necessarily in a good way) by the violence humans inflict on each other and zombies are a good gory representation of that. There’s no monster, no deranged killer, only us turning on each other, tearing each other apart for our own satisfaction, eating each other for our own sustenance.

    That kind of thing works for me as of now. But I’m an amateur, so…

    When you write your epic zombie novel, you have to promise to let me be one of the first to read it!

    • If it works for you, go for it. I’m certainly not trying to separate you from what you like. 🙂

      I have two novels–one with only a chapter, and another halfway done, but without the Zombie influence–that I might work on soon. I don’t know; the fiancee told me I had to get one of my other works polished before I moved on. For good reason, i think.

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